The Final Year, a new documentary about President Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office, has a scene that is an apt metaphor for the administration in its entirety. There, seated behind his desk in the West Wing of the White House, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes introduces his nameless assistants to the faceless (to the viewer) crew filming this event, while the camera cuts to a dead cockroach on the floor—which looks like a size 11 D Milano Florsheim Loafer, an overturned, cognac-colored shoe, with a pair of burgundy wings.
The roach belies everything else. The pomp and circumstance, the access to power, never mind the fecklessness of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, as well as the corruptive influences of youth and power—all of it blinds the oblivious to the obvious, that every reality distortion field eventually yields to reality itself.
The reality that confronts Power, who is the do-gooder to Rhodes’s good-for-nothing brand of do-nothing foreign policy, is twofold.
Start with the disconnect between the soft power of appearances and Power’s apparent disinterest in her own appearance. She knows that politics can be ugly, while politics itself is not show business for ugly people. But it is nonetheless a form of show business, which means a smart performance requires a smart appearance. Ambassador Power is either unaware of this truth, or unwilling to act on it, because she pays no attention to how she looks. (Before you heat your #MeToo branding irons and brandish your pink pussy hats—before you brand me with a series of scarlet hashtags and bombard me with charges of sexism—let me remind you that an acknowledgment of fact is not an admission of guilt.)
When a politician goes without makeup, and goes before a live television audience, how bad he looks will cause more shock than the most shocking thing he says. If you do not believe me, watch a clip from 1960 of that most feminine of creatures named Richard Nixon. He looks like a sweating, gaunt interloper—in a two-sizes-too-big suit, stolen from a mortuary—as he nods and walks to the lectern in his first presidential debate with John F. Kennedy. Or, look at Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III’s frothy rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address last week. This Kennedy is no Jack Kennedy, not when he is to Chapstick what mascara was to the late Tammy Faye Bakker: a sin.
The greater sin, however, is deceit. It is the false appearance of hope by a peddler of “Hope” and “Change.” It is the sight of Ambassador Power offering hugs in lieu of arms, of her talking about how her heart aches while she worsens the heartache of the people she visits. It is the sight of her emoting after a 6-year-old boy was struck and killed by her motorcade during a trip to Cameroon. It is the audacity of her hapless description of this death as the worst day of her professional life, as the dirt roads and dry creek beds recede from sight. It is her departing flight from a fight villagers must continue to wage alone, because Power is powerless to stop the forces of Islamic terror.
About those roads: Ben Rhodes takes a different path. He is the aide too arrogant to be anonymous, too contemptuous to be courteous, too pretentious to be plain. He is also too delusional to be deferential, what with his repeated references to “Obama,” as if the president is Rhodes’s mouthpiece; as if the president serves at the pleasure of this ventriloquist who tells him what to say, because Rhodes is too proud to say what he should have said at the start of this documentary: “No comment.”
Instead, he shows us what he plans to have the president say. He shows the world all he has to say about the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidency by smirking at the impossibility of such an idea. Rhodes refuses to consider such a thing, which may explain his failure as a one-time aspiring novelist, whose only published work of (intentional) fiction is a short story, “The Goldfish Smiles, You Smile Back.”
Rhodes is too impatient—and impertinent—to try to imagine an outcome he does not like. He is, in the end, too ignorant of America to speak for his fellow Americans; because none of the members of his fellowship of the self-anointed and the self-impressed can foresee a future without themselves dictating what the future should be.
More than a year after the election of President Trump, Power and Rhodes still do not get it. Too stubborn to concede the need for new leaders, and too busy to bother themselves with whether they are the right leaders the country needs, they are as scornful as ever. Contrition is as foreign to them as their policies are foreign to the electorate they despise.
Their first year as private citizens should be the beginning of their permanent exile from public office. If you doubt my words, watch The Final Year at least once every year.